Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Grandfather -- Part 1 of 4

My grandfather (on my mother’s side) was Joseph Goss Cowell but I always called him Grandee. He was born in Peoria, Illinois on December 4th, 1886.  But I’ll try not to get into a dry chronology of his life.  There is a little information on the net.  Not much since he preceded cyberspace.  But if you want a little background. there is a pretty good one on the Trinity Church Website in Wrentham, Massachusetts -- http://www.trinitywrentham.org/joscowell.htm.

He was an artist -- painter, sculptor, woodcarver. Before the Great Depression dropped the bottom out of new church construction, his specialty and love was creating alters. The one I know the best is the Children’s Chapel in Washington’s National Cathedral. I did not take the photograph below and apologize for any copyright infringement – but I don’t have a picture myself and it was what I could find.

Cathedral artists never signed their work but he used to talk about it. When I visited the Cathdral a few years ago – unfortunately without camera – I was wondering which chapel was his. But even from a distance amid several other chapels in cathedral alcoves, I knew it immediately when I saw it.  I can’t explain how. I guess, having lived with his work all my life, I just recognized it.

This is another of his alters (I don't remember where I took it)
He always did all the wood carving as well as the painting

In Boston, he shared a studio with John Singer Sergeant.  For a long time, he had one Sergeant's pallettes, cracked down the middle (which is why, I suppose Sergeant parted with it) hanging in his studio.  Years later, my grandmother, whose memory was beginning to fade at the time, threw it out. 

Mostly now, I find myself recognizing parts of his being imbedded in myself.  He was my primary influence due to the fact that Jean, his only daughter and my mother, died when I was 6.

My mother and grandmother

If you click on the painting above and look closely you will see two little pencil drawn hearts in boxes that I drew, as a child on his painting.  My grandmother was upset at first but Grandee said he thought it added alot to the painting.

My Dad (who I’ve talked about in earlier blogs) was an alcoholic, was unable to raise me after my mother's death, so I grew up with Grandee and Gramzee (Helen Cowell, my grandmother who was also a larger than life character for another blog at another time).  All the kids in the neighborhood knew them as Grandee and Gramzee.

Before his death (1970, I think) he instilled more of himself into my own soul than I was aware at the time.  Butler and also (I fear to say) Bagman are both direct descendents of his. In fact, I’m going to let Bagman, himself, write about Grandee’s wilder side in Part 3 although I may have to censor some of it. And Butler will provide a tour of some of his artwork on Hometown Photo Shootout Friday.  I know the theme is "My Faviorite Things" but his artwork certainly qualifies for me.  Besides, Friday is Grandee's birthday. 

And tomorrow I’ll share some of the things he taught me.

It’s odd because growing up, I thought of him as overly strict. But in pictures I can tell that I was usually the target of his overwhelming love. 

Frosty, Grandee, and my dog Skippy

Always the artist!  Being a kid, I was remember being embarrassed by this snowman at the time because I thought it should look more like a regular snowman.

He gave me my first camera that had adjustable speeds and aperatures.

Grandee, my first camera, and Mark Cowell
(Another Mark Cowell, my uncle (or cousin) who we called Mickey)

I have another confession to make.  Back then I was grateful for the camera but I blew off some of his suggestions about photography.  After all, great as he was, he was an artist from another era.  Photography was the new art.  What would an old painter and sculpture know about cameras. 

I'd seen the picture above many times.  This is the marble bust of my mother that Butler may mention later.  But it was only a couple of weeks ago that I took it carefully out of an album to scan it and on the back, Grandee had written:  "Taken for photography class."  Duh!  Now I'm thinking big bellows cameras, glass plates.  Of course he developed and printed everything himself.  Heck, he used to make his own paint sometimes.  

So I went back and found another I had remembered and looked at it.  Sometimes I have to be reminded to look at things.  I'm sure he could have told me alot about photography.  

"But now I do Digital and Photoshop," my ego proudly tells me.

But, thinking more, I just play with it really.  Grandee would have mastered the science behind it, the conversion of light to data, to pixels, to dots of ink...ah well. 

He believed in studying the bones and muscles behind the flesh.  He said, "How can you draw a body if you don't know what is under the flesh."


And he had insight into mortality as he did it. I always laugh at the sketch from his notebook below.

Finally, I remember most the smell of oil paints, linseed oil, wood chips that permeated every place I ever lived. 

Over the next three days, I want to cover some of the things I learned from him, some of his art and on Thursday, I really do need to cover his sexual nature...Bagman will help write it.  I considered not talking about that because he was, after all, my grandfather...but like Picasso and many other artists, his passions were part of who he was and I felt a certain honesty would be missing if I didn't mention it. 


  1. What a beautiful piece, I look forward to more...

  2. What a spectacular blog entry. Examined each one of those pictures full sized. How proud you must be of your heritage. And how proud he would be of your writing ability.

  3. And what I have missed by not doing blogs for a while.

  4. Well of course Bagman would like the Ice Queen dress, now I understand why. A lovely post. I love to learn about my ancestors. I also was raised in my maternal grandparents home, with my sister and mother, since our father was a hopeless alchoholic who could not care for us. My grandmother was a professional seamstress and I have sure benefited from that influence. Will look forward to the rest of the story. BTW, the pictures on my Monday post were just taken with my regular camera. I have a webcam but never tried pictures to use on my posts. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. How I enjoyed reading this - and will be back for the next instalments! Your grandfather was a man of amazing talents - his altar carvings are jaw-dropping!

    His love for you is so evident in embracing your little boxes with hearts on the portraits of your mother. He must have understood what a profound gesture that was from an orphaned son.

    Beautiful post.

  6. Interesting and complicated man...somewhat like you. I look forward to the next installment.

  7. I've been waiting (anxiously) for this series. This truly is the start of Christmas season.

    This was beautifully written Mark and I enjoyed all the pictures. Like Si I had to enlarge each of them, not to be content with Blogger's meager hint at their power.

    Your Grandfather was a remarkably man and it's time the internet caught up with him.

  8. I have been here half an hour admiring all this stuff. First of all, your grandfather was a brilliant man with a ton of creative energy. Now I want to visit Washington to see his Children's Chapel! I love the story of the hearts on the portraits of your mother. =D So beautiful. I cannot wait to read the rest of this. Your life has certainly been an emotional roller coaster, Mark. (like mine)
    Grandee shared a studio with John Singer Sargeant? Hello?
    I can see similarities between his style and Sargeant's. Looking at the portrait at the top, (great color blending) was that a self portrait? Sargeant's work is very much admired by artists today (sketching and expression). Tomorrow....

  9. Beautiful post, I look forward to reading the follow-ups! How blessed you are to have such a magnificent man in your life-I see yo come from a long line of artists...it's no wonder you are who you are!
    Thank you for sharing this glimpse of B&B!

  10. Wonderful, Mark. Thank you so much for sharing these special memories with us!

  11. This is great, and I am looking so forward to reading the entire series, and hope you do another on Gramzee.

  12. I came to you this morning with my cup of coffee and went back to the first to read forward, your physical resemblance to your mother (the redhead?) is astounding – in the painting she seems to have brown eyes and yours are that bright blue, but the look of thoughtful sadness is in both. Until you show the photo of your grandfather then you see that your physical presence is his…. Blood lines tell in the physical as well as the soul (I think!). As children, while trying to exert our separateness from our families we forget to listen – but everything he ever said to you is inside and I think you are listening now….

  13. I am reminded too of my brother Bennett, who passed at age 47 in 1996, and was an expert photographer. I often wonder what he'd think of digital and PhotoShop. I only dabble myself.

    Ok, now after reading and commenting backwards at Part 2 first, I don't think he's God. I think I'm in love with him. You can't be in love with God. I'm actually a little nervous about Part 3. I will be forever ruined for any other man!

  14. Oh, I love this but I have to go. My battery is dying. I will be back.

  15. Now I know where you get your good looks and talent. I love the photo of your grandfather with the camera. The one under it is splendid, too.

    The painting with the little hearts drawn on it are magnificent. Very moving.

    Your family has quite a history.

    I am going to go back and look some more. I will do part 2 tomorrow.

  16. WOW!!! This is great. Glad I came over to catch up with you. Your grandfather was right: the hearts add a lot to those portraits. Love it.

  17. This is so fascinating, I really enjoyed reading it. Such a talented man.

  18. Thank you for this loving portrait of your grandfather. My grandmother was born in Peoria in 1878 and married in 1900. Her only child, my mother, was born there in 1918. We all grew up with a beautiful portrait of Mother, painted around age 2. Now I understand why your grandfather was in Peoria!

    He rented the house next door to my grandparents and painted Mother while she played in her back garden. Mother did not sit for him at all. It is cherished by all the family.

    I inherited the painting when she died last October and it is currently being cleaned. It was the restoration expert who found your blog. I look forward to the next 3 installments!


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